U.S.D.A. Identifier: Cedar Springs Trail-4E13
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks.
Distance as hiked: 6 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,400ft., Top of trail- 6,800ft.
The Mountain Fire in the summer of 2013 devasted a large area of the southern San Bernardino Mountains. Located near Mountain Center and Idyllwild, Ca. the fire eventually spread to over 25,000 acres and burned in steep, difficult terrain. I don’t know of any deaths, but unfortunately homes were destroyed. Some info and pics here: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=81677
The fire affected an approximate 10 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail and a half-dozen trails throughout the San Jacinto Forest area. PCT hikers in 2014 and again in 2015 will have to detour onto Hwy 74 before getting back on the trail near Idyllwild. It also destroyed one of our favorite trails – Spitler Peak.
We would find a trail just south of the burn perimeter named Cedar Springs Trail. It’s located off of Hwy 74, about two miles from the junction with Hwy 371 and four miles south of Lake Hemet. There is a trail marker along the highway and a paved road takes you up and over a ridge several miles to the trailhead. The trail is located on private land, named Camp Scherman – a 700 acre camp owned by the Girl Scouts of Orange County. The pavement ends about 100 yards past the trailhead and parking is very limited, you basically have to angle your vehicle on the inclined hill.
The path starts out on a fire road and makes its way into a wooded area through a gate. There are several gates on this hike; not sure why but suspect there are horses or maybe some free range cattle. We paralleled a dry creek bed and the trail becomes a rocky, rutted path that appears to be a dry creek. The oak trees are the dominant tree and offer nice shade. We came up to a picnic area consisting of two tables near a meadow. To the right, the trees and shrubs are concentrated in a riparian area. We noticed a ribbon of a stream about 25 yards off-trail. Ahead was an ominous sign that made us giggle.
Up until this point, it was a leisurely walkabout along a fire road and a riparian path through the woods. Now, we would hit some switchbacks and begin a gradual climb. The views usually get better when you have switchbacks. If nothing else, the perspective changes. The hillside was covered with young yucca plants and skeletons of the old ones. It’s an interesting plant and can live for many years. I suspect the average life of this variety is less than ten years. Some species live to be over a hundred.
We rounded a switchback and were confronted with a mixed breed Rottweiler off-leash who was barking angrily at us. I got in front of my wife and held out my poles in case he charged. Three women were about 50 ft. behind and his owner tried to get him to stop advancing and barking at us, but he wasn’t very obedient. Eventually, she got him under control and we passed. I love animals, but some breeds are a bit intimidating on the trail. I reigned in my frustration over the incident and hiked on.
As we hit a summit and intersection with the PCT, we also saw some other signs which were disappointing.
Oh well, we will just hang a right and go south on the PCT for a bit.
The wind picked up as we trekked south and eventually we found an area sheltered from the wind looking down into the desert.
As we enjoyed the solitude and had our lunch with some hot tea, I noticed someone passing about 30 ft. behind us moving fairly quickly. I don’t believe he saw us because we were down behind some rocks. After lunch, we hit the trail for our return trip. Within a few minutes, we ran into the guy who passed us. He looked a bit frazzled and stressed. He had a distinct British accent and mentioned that he had been lost for several hours just south of here and was supposed to meet his wife at a restaurant nearby. I assured him that he was on the PCT heading back in the right direction. This gentleman was out alone, no map, no backpack, a GPS with a dead battery and a 20 oz. bottle of juice. We made sure he was ok and followed behind him. He was moving quickly and eventually disappeared.
Our descent was uneventful as I reflected back on another enjoyable day on the trail. While the beautiful Sierras are the ultimate eye-candy, the short hikes on the PCT near our home are a good prescription for the office cubicle doldrums.
– When hiking alone, pack the 10 hiking essentials and always let someone know where you are hiking. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Essentials
– When day hiking, I carry a little extra water and snacks in case we run into a lost hiker.
– If you get lost, take a break, calm down and try to get reoriented.
– If you are hopelessly lost, do not get off the path. Stay put, eventually you will be found.
Gear we use:
In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail:
You may be a potential class of 2015 PCT thru-hiker, or are wondering what your chances of encountering a rattlesnake on the trail are. Based on my experience, the odds of running across one of these vipers in southern California are high. The more you hike, the higher the odds. Should that keep you off the trail? No! It is more likely that you will be hit in a crosswalk than being bitten by a rattlesnake on the PCT. I know, not very reassuring is it?
The truth is, by understanding the basic behavior of these snakes, you can reduce your chances of a direct confrontation with them. First of all, they are not the aggressive human-attacking species that people make them out to be. They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.
Behaviour: They are a cold natured species and generally are not found slithering about in cooler temps. Rarely seen in winter and colder days. Could you see them in the morning? Not likely, unless you are cowboy camping and one has climbed into your sleeping bag for warmth. But, you are more likely to get a scorpion in your bag in the Mojave than a snake. The most common encounter with a rattler is one laying out in the sun on the trail. The trails are exposed to the sun and relatively close to brush where they can escape. Most of the rattlers that I have come across are getting sun in the mid-late afternoon hours. When sunning, they often stretch out to their full length. Somewhat nocturnal, they have been known to move about at night while hunting but do not usually travel far.
Habitat: In southern California and into the Sierras, mostly found in the dry, arid chaparral which pretty much describes most of the state. In the mountains, usually below 7,500 ft. It doesn’t mean you will not find them above that altitude, just not very common because it gets cold up there. Often found around/under rocks or loose pine needles and leaves.
If you happen to come upon a rattler on the trail, my advice is to give it a wide berth. If you prod it with your hiking pole, it may get into a defensive posture (coiled up) and can strike up to 3/4 of its length. Sometimes, a gentle coaxing with you pole may work, but it depends on the mood that it is in. Be careful when detouring around a snake because they do nest in the brush and chaparral. Bushwhacking increases your chances of being bitten.
Rattlesnake Avoidance: Your best defense is to be aware. This is hard when you’ve been hiking all day and your eyes are focused three feet in front of you. In my opinion, snake gaiters or leggings are not worth it unless you do a lot of bushwhacking. Hiking with pets? Dogs are frequently bitten by rattlers and it is often fatal to smaller breeds. Larger breeds survive, but the bite can cause intense swelling and permanent tissue damage. Use caution when taking your dogs on hikes. While the idea of your dog roaming free sounds like fun, a leash could save them from getting bitten.
If you are bitten: I am not qualified to give medical advice but can tell you that you will probably not die from a rattlesnake bite. The bite is very painful and your limbs may swell extensively. If you carry a GPS locator or beacon, now is a good time to activate it. If you are with someone, have them get help and stay calm. If you can walk, make your way to get help. And no, don’t slice into the snake bite area with a knife and suck out the poison. The Mayo clinic has some good first aid advice here: http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681
My closest encounter: Less than a foot. While hiking with my wife I often provide a safety brief like what to do in thunderstorms or first aid, and today I mentioned that a rattler can sound like bacon frying when it is warning you. Around 7,000 ft near the beginning of our hike, I was walking and unwrapping an energy bar when my wife suddenly sprinted ahead and told me to stop. The sound was unmistakable and very close. To my left, was a large boulder and a Pacific Rattler was coiled underneath. I slowly backed off and gave this critter a wide berth. Afterward, she mentioned that “the sound of bacon frying was very accurate”. Moral of the story, eat bacon and you can avoid rattlesnakes.
A good handbook with lots of info for the backcountry hiker: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
Disclaimer: I am not a herpetologist and can barely spell it. My observations of rattlesnakes are based upon my experience hiking in California. Being aware on the trail is your best defense against snakes or any other wildlife that could harm you. Never go out of your way to kill a rattler – they serve a good purpose in the food chain. There are fewer rodents out there because of them.
It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing . Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time. Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail. This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California. We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them. Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent. What the heck? Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps. Nothing. The light continued to shine, barely moving. Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on. A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out. The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.
Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent. Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death. That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.
If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites. Those are valuable resources. Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. It is an awesome resource. I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close. Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.
Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule. I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep. Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact. You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass. Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate. Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.
Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site. I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek. The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss. So, rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down. Rocks also are good lightning conductors!
When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour. Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch? Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball? In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.
Widow-makers: Those dead trees that are still standing. Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you. If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest. Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.
Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks. A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night. If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point. Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad. If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.
Some other tips:
Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent. Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance. If not you may get some late night company looking for food.
Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent. 🙂 At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.
For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent. The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher. Use a tent footprint. It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent. It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots. I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.
Invest in a good set of tent stakes. Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily. There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy. These are virtually indestructible. I usually find a rock and bang them in. I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy. Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.
Klingers: People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp. Don’t be a Klinger.
Lightning: No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry. During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following: If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack. If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.
In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower. If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail, use your camp towel to wipe it down. If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry. Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip. It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew. It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap. I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here: Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.
I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night. Hey, you’ll understand when you get old. But the most important thing is a site with a view. You will know it when you see it.
Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent? Please share them in the comments! Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.
Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route. We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before. Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.
After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass. A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going. The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly. The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go. We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike. The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.
Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy. There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista. The views to the west were beautiful. In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery. There were several lakes below; one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake. We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply. Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food. We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.
We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way. Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way. We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes. The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain. A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily. We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes. We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.
Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area. The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake. It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet. The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake. We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water. After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching. Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like. It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet. The trout were jumping every few seconds. The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named. We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area. I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.
After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail. The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack. We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle. It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it. As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind. I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity. She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail. She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who (as always) is ahead of me. They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass. Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb. Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.
The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail. PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies. Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana. Her trail-name was Pillsbury, and she was quite the character. Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon. He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit. Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.
Pillsbury wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera. She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands. The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished. She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go. While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground. We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.
We had time to enjoy our camp this time. It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner. The Black Bart Chili tasted great. It’s one of our favorites. As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night. Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent. Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.
No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated. Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning. Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake. We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling. Not sure that it was a wise choice. A fall here would have hurt.
Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice. The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing. The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different. Still lots of jumping trout though. We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.
This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year. The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass. Mt. Whitney, here we come.
Some lessons learned on this trip:
– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night. Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest. While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft. Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft. Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate. Recommendation: When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.
– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude. In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.
– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers. You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life. Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail. You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.
– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water. Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂
It’s been over a year since the Mountain Fire consumed over 27,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County. As a result, some of the trails in the San Jacinto range and some of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed indefinitely. The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical equipment failure on private property. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Since last fall’s hike on Fuller Ridge, we haven’t been back in the San Jacinto area. We love to hike up here in the summer because you can usually escape the hotter temps in the valleys below.
Today, we would venture out on Devil’s Slide and hit Saddle Junction From there, we would see which trails were open. On the weekends, this is a popular trail so the recommendation is to come early or start late (around noon). Humber Park is a popular area to picnic and the Earnie Maxwell trail is a 2.6 mile one way shuttle hike for a nicer walk in the park. Parking in Humber Park requires an adventure pass. For the Devil’s Slide trail, you will need to pick up a permit at the ranger’s station in Idyllwild.
I usually check the weather forecast when we hike. Now, a tropical storm off the Baja Peninsula was pumping in moisture to the desert regions east with subsequent scattered thunderstorms in the mountains. One thing about hiking, the longer you do it, the better you get at understanding the weather. The cumulus clouds were definitely about, but were spread out and not building into thunder-cells.
The trail up Devil’s Slide is well maintained, wide – with a mix of dirt, granite and some sand and scree. It gains a steady 500 ft. or so for the first mile and then you get switchbacks that are around 700 ft. per mile. It’s a steady climb with nice views of Suicide Rock and Lily Rock, both favorites for local climbers. You can hear them calling out to each other as you head up.
Unfortunately, this has been a low snow year so the trail is totally dry. If you want to find water sources in the wilderness, watch for bees. They seek out moisture and will actually pull water out of moist dirt that usually has a water source underneath. They often will take the water back to the queen to cool her down. I love nature.
After 2.5 miles, we reached Saddle Junction and most of the trails were roped off by the USFS. The Mountain Fire did impact a large area, but many mature trees survived because the fire was not as intense. Some species of pines in this area have bark that is 3-5 inches thick. It’s like armor and protects the conifers from the heat.
We took one of two available trails toward Tahquitz Valley, hoping that we could work our way toward Law’s Camp a few miles away which has decent views of the desert. After a half mile or so, we would run into some volunteer ranger’s and I automatically gave them my permit. The people who volunteer are usually locals that love this area and are a big asset to the Forest Service. They check permits, clean up trash and seek out illegal campsites or fire rings. Often, they assist with search and rescue. We had a nice conversation with them and were on our way again. We came to another junction and unfortunately, the trails to the north were closed so we went into Tahquitz Valley toward Tahquitz Peak.
We were rewarded with a display of colorful ferns. Some were orange and yellow, probably due to the lack of rain, but it seemed like fall foliage to us. We had the trail to ourselves for the next few hours as most people stopped at the junction or went straight to the peak. The trail meandered through the forest passing a couple of remote campsites. These would be nice if there was water around. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring it in like a camel.
One of the volunteer rangers mentioned that thunderstorms were due in around 3 p.m. We pushed up the last 500 ft. just past the Tahquitz Peak junction and wandered out to an outcropping for views of Lily Rock and the valley where we would take a late lunch break. Good thing too, because I hit the classic wall where I was out of energy. Many long distance hikers experience this frequently where they just run out of steam. For them, trying to stay ahead of the calorie deficit is the key. For us occasional day hikers, it’s a matter of eating a decent breakfast and snacking along the way.
We heard one group pass on their way to the peak and then the first rumbles of thunder. I looked around to see the source and the cumulus clouds were gathering to our south and moving north towards us. We finished up and began a fairly quick retreat down the mountain. Unfortunately, the first mile or so was parallel to the storm so we didn’t make much headway, but ended up getting out of harms way fairly quickly. I found out later that the storm dumped several inches of rain with hundreds of lightning strikes to our south and east. Did you know lightning can strike 20+ miles away from a storm? We took the opportunity to talk about lightning safety and what actions we would take. Feel a tingling on the back of your neck or arms? Drop those poles and squat near the ground ASAP. Don’t touch the ground though.
Anyhow, hike long enough and you are bound to get wet and/or experience lightning. Be prepared and have a plan. Pack a rain-pancho or raincoat – you can get hypothermia even in the summer. Avoid peaks and summits in thunderstorm conditions around the noon to early afternoon hours.
In summary, the Devil’s Slide trail to Saddle Junction is fairly limited for the time being due to the fire, but take the loop to Tahquitz Peak as it is a worthwhile trek. The views from the peak and the Lily Rock canyon are stellar. You’ll log around 9.5-9.7 miles on this walkabout. Take at least 2-3 liters of water with you, there’s none to be found this time of year. Hike on……
We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California. What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.
It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, there are hundreds of trails to choose from. From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union. A couple of reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.
The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs north-south. From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views. The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral. They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer. The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north. We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time. I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.
The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk. Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles. Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers. Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole. Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened. Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear. Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey. Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down. We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto. Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.
Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes. On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s. Wind is usually a factor and its effects are significant wind chills and increased dehydration. It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too. Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable. We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.
Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft. If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike. Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks. Many of the trails are comprised of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery. Trekking poles are invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble. Even more important, the poles are knee savers. They will probably make nice spears too.
The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs. Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows. They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other. The colors at sunset are beautiful.
All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego. We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout. Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.
Dazed and losing consciousness, the shade of a scruffy manzanita tree was just ahead. My calf had doubled in size due to the swelling. Using my hiking poles as crutches, I would take a step and drag my leg. Checking my cell phone for reception, my heart sank – no signal. I tried dialing 911 anyway and the call failed. Reaching the small patch of shade, I crumpled on the dusty trail and took my pack off. I fumbled for my SPOT Messenger, an emergency beacon, flipped the cover over the SOS button and pressed it. After a minute, the light was green indicating that the message for help was transmitting. The throbbing in my leg had ceased, replaced by a numbing sensation – similar to falling asleep on your arm. I remember seeing the jagged peaks of the Ocotillos on the distant horizon and faded into a dream….
Living in Southern California, I became interested in the Pacific Crest Trail or (PCT) soon after becoming an avid day hiker. The 2,600 mile trail begins at the U.S. – Mexican border near Campo, California and ends at E.C. Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. The southern terminus of the trail is marked with a monument, the border fence on the other side of a dirt road. I’ve hiked sections of the PCT, usually 8-10 miles at a time. At this rate, I would hike the entire PCT in 30 years. The realities of life keep this thru-hike fantasy at bay.
Today, I would park almost 20 miles north of the trailhead near the Lake Morena Campground and have a friend drop me off at the border near Campo. He was on his way to Yuma, so it was only 12 miles out-of-the-way. Dropping me off on the dirt road, I would walk to the border, touch the PCT marker and backtrack north. I waved to my friend as he pulled away on the dirt road and headed north. Dust arose as the car faded in the distance. How strange it must be for the Mexicans who witness the hikers that walk this desolate trail. I’ve read that encounters with illegal immigrants are rare in the daytime down here. At night, the human smugglers known as coyotes herd the immigrants through this area, often abandoning them at the first sign of trouble. Human trafficking is a sad thing and I tried not to think about it. On this fall day, the sun was out early to greet me. The forecast had temps in the mid 80’s – not bad for the desert. I had 4 liters of water and enough food for a couple of days. Water is pretty scarce around here this time of year. This would be my longest single mileage day since my trek on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. I’ve worked up to the longer mileage and was fit enough to give it a go. The sky was clear with a few wispy cirrus clouds. Taking out my little camera, I had to get a shot of the beginning of this famous trail.
It was so quiet out here because the sand and chaparral absorb most of the sound. The occasional chatter of a Gambel’s Quail would break the silence. Using my map, I would pick my way around fences, up dirt roads and past some ranches. Passing through the little town of Campo, I would see a post office and a small store. Walking across Hwy 94, I saw cars in the distance, the blacktop making them seem like a mirage.
Crossing some railroad tracks and an old jeep road, I was making good time. Finding shade in the cleft of a boulder, I took a break. The screech of a red-tail hawk on the hunt pierced the tranquility. It was catching a morning updraft, conserving energy. The trail was relatively easy to follow and the elevation was around 2,800-3000 ft. Checking my GPS, it indicated my average speed was 2.8 mph. I was on track to make it to my car by sundown. While prepared to hike in the dark, it’s not something that I enjoy doing. Around the 8 mile mark, I made the crest of a ridge and noticed a descent into a canyon, followed by a 300-400 ft climb. I crossed another jeep road with a gate. Time for another snack, but I would keep moving. While unwrapping my snack bar, I remember looking up in time to avoid tripping over a rock. The Pacific Rattler struck without warning. I remember yelling and lunging forward, the adrenaline surging through my body. I must have run another 30-40 feet before stopping. Looking back, the snake was still coiled under the rock near the trail. The pain in my calf jolted me back into reality. I dropped my poles and unfastened the nylon gaiter on my right leg. Two small holes, one with blood on my calf. The serpent had bitten me through the gaiter. My initial reaction was one of panic. Within a few minutes, the area around the bite burned like fire and the skin turned red and was swollen. I got farther away from the snake and retrieved my cell phone to call for help. No signal! I was in a canyon with no reception. At this point, I wasn’t worried about dying. I knew that most rattlesnake bites were not fatal and that it was important to calm down so that I could make good decisions. I had not seen one person since the little hamlet of Campo, so I prayed to my God for calm and asked Him to get me out of here.
Looking at my map, I was 9 miles into my 20 mile hike. The campground was 10 miles to the north with a 1,200 foot climb. Campo was 8 miles to the south. Not knowing how the snake bite would affect me, I decided to head back south and prayed for a phone signal. I made a detour around the wretched snake and began to feel a bit lethargic and dizzy. Sweat was dripping as my body reacted to the situation. I drank more water and tried to stay calm. Up ahead near the ridge, I noticed some scrubby trees and hoped for some shade. My leg was swelling noticeably and I knew to leave my shoes on. I made it to some manzanitas and dropped my pack.
Still no signal. I knew what had to be done. Six months earlier, I had purchased a GPS device that serves as an emergency beacon and allows for me to be tracked by family members on a website. At the start of my hike, I transmitted the “OK” signal to my wife which sends an email and text to her cell phone with my location. Now, I fumbled for the device and knew that I had to signal for help. I flipped off the safety cover and pressed the SOS button. After a minute, it blinked green indicating that it was transmitting. Hopefully, help would be here within the hour. Looking around, I noticed the tranquility and beauty of the land. The Ocotillos mountain range was in the distance. The last thing I remember was a slight buzz in my ears.
I remember having strange dreams. In one of my dreams, I was dressed up in a fat bunny suit and jumping through the neighbor’s yards. I still don’t understand that dream. It was bright when I woke up. In a strange room, the beep, beep of the monitor and I.V. in my arm left no doubt where I was. A nurse came in and told me that it took three vials of antivenom to treat me. My leg would be fine, albeit sore for a long time.
Later, I would be told that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received the call from the company that monitors the SPOT GPS messenger. The police chopper was on the scene within 55 minutes. Working with the Border Patrol, they would make their way up a jeep road and haul me out on a 4 wheeler with a gurney. A helicopter would land on Hwy 94 and take me to the hospital in El Cajon, 35 miles away.
Friends, fellow bloggers – at this point I must tell you that this story is a work of FICTION. This didn’t really happen to me. Have I seen rattlers on the trail? Yes, many. Normally, the rattlers are not aggressive and actually prefer to stay away from humans. Most rattlesnake bite victims are oblivious to the snake until they step on it or surprise it on the trail. I can only tell you that if you do hike alone, ensure that someone knows where you are and take a cell phone. Unfortunately, if you hike in remote areas, a cellular signal is not guaranteed. For peace of mind, I picked up an emergency beacon and hope to never use it. Be prepared for the chance rattler encounter and have a plan. If you do stumble on one, freeze and allow it to retreat. If it coils, slowly back away and give it a wide berth. The most common rattlers in Southern California are the Pacific and Diamondback. In my experience, the Pacific Rattlers tend to be more defensive and will coil when threatened. They have the ability to strike out at 40% of their length. A coiled 6 foot rattler can lunge over 2.5 ft! Most of my encounters have been in the afternoon. I actually came within two feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler this past summer; but for the grace of God was not bitten. Enjoy your hike and be alert!
Trekking poles are also great because they can put some distance between you and a snake. I highly recommend these made by Kelty: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
If you insist on walking through rattlesnake infested brush, at least consider these: Rattler Scaletech Snake Protection Gaiters (Green)
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
So, in the past couple of years, we have logged about 350 miles. I’ve done about 60 solo miles and 35 or so in the backcountry with some crazy Marines. All of the hikes with Mary have been day hikes ranging from 3-12 miles. Most of the trails have been established and fairly well marked. Sometimes, the trails are not obvious and you just wing it. That brings us to the most recent hike in the Laguna Mountains Recreation Area. Located at the southeast end of the Cleveland National Forest, the Peninsular range has some of the most amazing views in southern Cali. Alpine like landscape to the west and the Anza Borrego Desert to the east. The famous Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) passes through here before entering the desert. It’s my favorite area to hike.
With our usual late start, we arrived near the Big Laguna Trailhead and started our way to Monument Peak. We allowed two young Marines to pass who were apparently doing a section hike of the PCT. Their big packs dwarfed my daypack, and I almost envied their long journey. We came to a junction and could see Monument Peak with its’ array of microwave and cellular antennas nearby. What I’ve learned is that while a landmark may look close, the path to get there is not. We continued down the trail, rounded a bend and the late afternoon sun made the desert vista pop. Words can’t describe the various colors you see along with the contrast of peaks and canyons below. We missed the unmarked trail to Monument Peak and decided to scramble up an adjacent peak to see if it was possible to get there off trail. I think Mary was raised with billy goats because she bushwhacked her way up the first summit faster than you could say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. We made the first hill, climbed and picked our way around the chaparral before finally arriving at a fenced in laser testing facility near Monument Peak. I wondered how and why they tested lasers up here. Do they bounce them off of coyotes and rabbits? Hmm. The winds were about 20-25 mph and made the cool air feel much colder. We hit the summit, and could see for over 50 miles in each direction. The Coronado Islands were to the west, and the Salton Sea to the east. We got some good pics and started to look for the way back. The trail we came up on was out of the question because, well it wasn’t really a trail. The sun was starting to go down quickly and we knew that we needed to get off this peak as the temperatures drop quickly.
I could go on about how we made our way back, but the unplanned route down the access road, through the woods and back on another section of the PCT made this hike a little longer than planned. We ended up on the highway about 3/4 mile from where the staging area was and jogged down the dark Sunrise Highway with our headlamps bouncing around. We made it to the trusty Celica where I asked Mary to draw her name with the red lens on her lamp while I set the camera for a long exposure. She humored me for a bit before giving up to thaw out her slightly frigid hands. We logged about 5.5 miles on this one, half of it off trail. While not really lost, we did end up off the planned route and a bit unprepared for the cold weather.
Lessons Learned: 1. Always have a detailed map 2. Bring clothing for all weather conditions (it was 72deg in San Marcos and 45deg only an hour to the east.) 3. Running down a country road at night is kinda fun.